Umm Kulthum was born Fāṭima ʾIbrāhīm es-Sayyid el-Beltāǧī on 31 December 1898, or 4 May 1904. Birth registaration was not enforced in Egypt at that time. She died 3rd February 1975. She was a singer, songwriter, and film actress working between the 1920s and the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Shar meaning Star of the East.
Umm Kulthum was renowned and admired for her vocal ability and style. She sold over 80 million records worldwide, making her one of best-selling singers of all time from the Arab World. In her native Egypt she is regarded as a national icon and has been dubbed the voice of Egypt and the fourth pyramid
Part of my reason for undertaking this Listening to Women project was to ensure I explored music beyond my usual ranges of taste and experience. Music from different cultures and traditions is much more readily available now than when I was growing up and discovering music for myself in my teens. In the 70s and 80s I was listening to music via Radio 1, Top of the Pops and whatever my parents were playing – which to my good fortune was curiously eclectic, ranging from Chris Barber to Earth, Wind and Fire to Tammy Wynette. The latter will always have a place in my heart.
My tastes have expanded over my life but have been firmly western for the most part. Furthermore, I have realised that I was listening to a lot of men, with women being in the minority of artists that I regularly turned to. This lack of balance is a reflection of the wider culture and the sheer dominance of male voices, musicians, producers in the music industry. I am making a deliberate and concerted effort to address these imbalances and to seek out work by women, not only in music but in every field.
Listening to Umm Kulthum has been a beautiful experience. Her voice is complex, with range and depth that has a profound emotional impact. She has been lauded by fellow artists, as diverse as Bob Dylan and Maria Callas and it is clear why. Her voice reaches in and demands a response. I listen and find myself emotionally engaged in her music, committed to it, following her voice note by note. She sings in a language I don’t speak but her music transcends that. I have looked at lyrical translations but of course in English the words do not have the same resonance. I decided not to worry too much about that and to focus on the sound, the emotion, the sheer beauty of her work.
Umm Kulthum was politically engaged and post the revolution in Egypt in 1952 she became persona non grata for a while. Her music was banned from airplay. Nasser insisted that she be restored to her prominent position and even timed his broadcasts to not interfere with her performances on the radio. She became friends with Nasser – who is of course a problematic figure. Her story illustrates yet again that politically engaged artists can and often do face danger in countries and regimes where their work is considered a threat to power.
Listen for yourself and prepare to be captivated: